The 11th century was a time of danger for the Jews of Europe, an era of blood libel, the earliest Crusade and other attacks on the continent’s vulnerable Jewish population. Out of that crucible emerged a piece of liturgy whose roots are often forgotten but whose spiritual influence endures at this time of year.
The Hebrew liturgical poem, in English, “Let Us Speak of the Awesomeness,” is for many worshippers the highlight of the Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur services. It was recited, according to legend, by a pious rabbi martyred for his faith. His dying words are recited still: “On Rosh HaShanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed … who will live and who will die … who by fire and who by water … .”
The stark descriptions of our possible fate are sobering, but the prayer concludes on an uplifting note with the promise that “repentance, prayer and charity avert the severe decree.”
Much of 5775 has been worrisome for the Jewish people, with anti-Semitism on the rise in Europe, concerns over the BDS movement growing at home, and the existential threat of a nuclear Iran.
But the last year has also offered room for cautious optimism. A truce with Hamas has held. Creative expressions of Jewish life in America continue to flourish. And contenders in both major parties for the 2016 presidential race compete to declare their love for the Jewish state.
Times of peril often prove to be times of accomplishment, too. The 11th century produced Rashi’s commentaries on the Torah, Solomon ibn Gabriol’s masterful Hebrew poems, and a Charter of Protection in Speyer, Germany, for the Jews who had fled there from Mainz.
We Jews today live with more freedom and security than any Jewish community in history. And though we have been described as “the ever-dying people,” we have survived for millennium because of our resilience and ultimate optimism for the future.
In that spirit The Jewish Week wishes its readers a sweet year, one of health, blessings and peace, one in which all severe decrees are annulled.